A 2015 article started with the headline “Here’s Why Penny Wong Will Never Be Prime Minister.” The Senator and Shadow foreign minister had then spoken about not wanting to expose her family to the toxic sexism, homophobia, and racism of the national electorate.
A month before the federal elections in Australia, and with Labor enjoying a huge polling lead, Wong is tipped to become one of the most powerful out politicians in Australia, with a prominent cabinet posting.
“If we are fortunate enough to form a Government after the election, I think it will send a pretty powerful message to the world about where Australia is as a nation, to have me as Foreign Minister,” Wong told Star Observer in an email interview.
Wong has been a familiar and reassuring presence in Australia’s Parliament for two decades. In March, a Roy Morgan survey found that Wong was the most trusted politician in Australia. That was not a surprise for those following Australian politics or the thousands of her fans on social media. Wong’s parliamentary committee meetings where she grills Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s cabinet ministers or department heads are the stuff of viral videos and memes.
Wong said she never set out to be a role model. “I’ve never sought to be a role model, but I have come to understand that you can’t be what you can’t see.”
In the past couple of years, Australia’s Parliament and major parties have had to confront accusations of sexism and misogyny. Wong revealed that she has not been immune to it during her career.
“I’ve been catcalled, I’ve been called a ‘quota girl’,” said Wong, adding, “It’s clear from everything we’ve seen and heard over the past year that we have a long way to go to improve the culture within Parliament.”
Wong, the leader of the opposition in the Senate, assured that the Labor party had changed in the past two decades that she had been in Parliament.
“Within the Labor Party, we’ve worked hard to ensure our caucus better reflects the wider community. We’re now approaching 50/50 in the caucus – and in the Senate, we have more women than men,” informed Wong.
“That shifts the culture within the party – and I have certainly felt the benefits of that. And as a party, we are committed to working across the Parliament to improve working conditions for parliamentarians, staff and other building occupants.”
Wong is no stranger to facing biased media coverage or online trolls. When it comes to homophobia in Australian politics, Wong believes “it is still a problem across our community, and the remnants of that are reflected in our Parliament also.”
“I think most politicians – particularly women – will be able to tell you we get some pretty nasty comments on social media. Unfortunately for me, those comments will sometimes have an ugly homophobic undertone,” said Wong.
According to Wong, all political parties have a role in combating anti-LGBTQI hate and increasing the representation of LGBTQI political leaders.
“My view has always been that our Parliament best serves the community when it reflects the community. Not just in terms of sexual orientation, but also gender, gender identity and cultural background.”
For the LGBTQI community, it has been a tough year with conservative politicians attempting to push transphobic laws in state parliaments and the bruising debates around Morrison’s efforts to pass the Religious Discrimination Bill.
During the vote on the Bill in Parliament, some community advocates questioned Labor for not taking a clear and equivocal stand against the proposed legislation. Wong, however, explained that Labor had a clear plan to stand up against discrimination.
“What that debate demonstrated yet again is Mr Morrison’s willingness to engage in the politics of division. I think Australians are ready for a leader who brings people together, and this is what Anthony Albanese seeks to do,” said Wong.
“With that bill, Mr Morrison sought to pit groups against each other. Anthony’s approach was to defend all of them. Labor believes all Australians have the right to live their lives free of discrimination. As Anthony told the Parliament at the time, we need shields from discrimination, not swords for discrimination. Labor’s view was that the Parliament should find a way of affording people of faith protections without diminishing protections for other Australians, including the rights of the LGBTQI+ community, which have been hard fought for and won.”
“That is why Labor moved amendments to the flawed bill – and we were able to insert an amendment prohibiting discrimination against school children before Mr Morrison walked away from the whole bill.”
Wong reiterated Labor’s commitment to protecting people of faith without targeting other vulnerable groups. “Labor has made a commitment that if we are elected we will move to prevent discrimination against people of faith, including anti-vilification protections; act to protect all students from discrimination on any grounds; and, protect teachers from discrimination at work, whilst maintaining the right of religious schools to preference people of their faith in the selection of staff. We believe these are principles worth fighting for.”
Labor, Wong said, has a “real plan” for Australia’s future. “If you vote Labor in May, Anthony Albanese will be a Prime Minister who doesn’t go missing when the going gets tough. He’ll show up, step up and work every day to bring our country together.”
Labor has promised to deliver “stronger Medicare, more secure work, real action on climate change… cheaper child care to almost every family in the system.” Albanese has also committed to fixing Australia’s aged care crisis.
Wong said Labor will also have specific policies for the LGBTQI community, and pointed to the party’s “history of advancing equality,” including Albanese’s push for access to superannuation entitlements for same-sex couples during his first term in Parliament in the 1990s.
“Labor worked with so many LGBTQI champions to build support for marriage equality within our own party and then ultimately the whole community, and campaigned hard for this reform when the Liberals imposed a harmful and unnecessary public vote on our community.”
Wong said that the party had “committed to banning discrimination of any kind for school kids, and for school teachers in religious schools once employed, ” adding that its approach would be “to work with and empower the community in decisions that impact LGBTQI Australians.”
Wong has kept her family and personal life away from the public glare, but it has not been easy. “Public office comes with many sacrifices – but the greatest is, of course, the impact it has on those closest to us. My partner and kids bear the brunt of that, with so much time away, or on the phone,” Wong readily admitted.
“We work hard at finding ways to stay connected, like reading the same books, even if we can’t be in the same city.”
With PM Morrison fighting for his political life and Labor aiming to deny the Liberal party, which has been in power for close to a decade, another term in office, the upcoming federal election is shaping up to be a milestone one. Wong said the focus should be “on building a better country, rather than political games.”
And is Australia ready for an LGBTQI person to be Prime Minister? Wong responded: “I certainly hope so – but in Anthony Albanese, LGBTQI people will have a Prime Minister who has their back. He was a champion for our community long before it was fashionable for a straight man to hold such positions. I’ve known Anthony a long time – and I know he will be a leader who brings this country together in the spirit of compassion and decency.”
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